On Being Grateful

(artiemedvedev/Getty Images)We should be cheerful, useful, modest, and patient, and ever mindful of those gifts and blessings that we could not possibly hope to deserve.

My mother always enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner. She took a traditional Southern woman’s pride in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare display of kindness by declining to inform her that she was a fairly dreadful cook, one whose kitchen alchemy on the electric range could turn a cheap cut of round steak into polyester.

It took me a while to figure out that she was not a bad cook but a perfectly ordinary cook who was suspended in a kind of culinary limbo where it had never stopped being 1957, when global nuclear annihilation was right around the corner and men died at 66.4 years of age and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to combine canned cherry pie filling with chunks of Philadelphia cream cheese and Cool Whip and sprinkle pecans on top and call it, with a perfectly straight face, salad.

There was a half-gallon bottle of Karo syrup in the pantry, and her batterie de cuisine was a can-opener and a skillet.

She made great cornbread, though, and I wish she were still around to make it.

Gratitude is a form of memory. Loss teaches us how to be grateful, which is why in much of the world the remembrances of the dead come just before, or concurrently with, the harvest festivals. Love and loss, harvest and hunger: These are things we are meant to think about together, two parts of a whole truth. At our harvest festival, Thanksgiving, we are instructed to think about gratitude — practically hectored about it.

That thankfulness can be a tricky thing, because we are not wired for gratitude — we are wired for comparison. If you met a man who had never had an apple and you gave him one — a really good one — he would think it was the most marvelous thing in the world, and he would be grateful. And, in five minutes, he’d think: Why does that guy have a bigger apple than the one I got? Or: Think of all those lost years, never knowing what an apple is! Or: Will I ever have another apple? And is there maybe some better kind of apple out there?

Of course we can’t be happy with the apple. That would be too simple, and so, instead, we have envy, jealousy, and civilization.

Comparison is how we really learn, which is why living memory is a gift. When people of my father’s generation who grew up in shocking poverty say things such as, “We didn’t know we were poor,” they are not being precious. That was the world they lived in, and there was no Instagram by which to keep up with the Kardashians. My father had outdoor plumbing and got one pair of shoes a year, when school started — and so did everybody else he knew. There wasn’t anything remarkable about it at the time. We can only see it straight after the fact, when enough time has gone by.

That time lag has interesting effects. Those of us lucky enough to know people raised during the Great Depression or the war years do well to note how easy they are not only to please but to delight. Ask an 85-year-old in Beaumont, Texas, or Tucumcari, N.M., about his air-conditioning, and he will sing you a hymn. That weird gelatin-based Eisenhower-era party food was haute cuisine to people who had spent the 1930s eating beans five times a week — or fought standing in blood half-starving at Hürtgen Forest. Their memories can, if we will pay attention, illuminate our present bliss. Every oldster who has ever bored you to death with a story of hardship beginning with the words “In my day” was offering you a gift, and you’d be smart to accept it.

Say this, at least, for the annus horribilis 2020: It will give us all some “In my day” stories with which to irritate our grandchildren, if we are so blessed.

Unless I am much mistaken, there is a growing sense, combining present dread with wary hope, that we are near to the end of the coronavirus epidemic, that the vaccines coming into use will bring the situation under control — but that this is not going to happen until the end of a long, cold, lonely winter. Maybe there is some Providence in the timing: There is a reason that so many religious traditions have something like Lent, and that it is in the dark months that we choose to prepare ourselves for gratitude. And we need preparation: Virtues do not come easily to us — not to me, anyway. The calendar is a teacher, too: We celebrate the harvest and then prepare for the lengthening darkness of winter, which is not a punishment but a preparation.

I want to be careful about the silver-linings stuff. This has been a period of intense suffering for many people — sickness, death, joblessness, loneliness, anxiety — and very little of that has touched me and mine, and it won’t do to be glib about it. I canceled a fun trip to Europe and have made a lot of Zoom calls — not exactly the tribulation of Job. The epidemic has barely touched my family, but I would not have chosen this, for myself or for anybody else, and I want it to be over as soon as possible. But if must go through it, then we should profit by it — it doesn’t cost extra.

Elie Wiesel relates a story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe.

A disciple tells the Kotzker his woes: “I come from Rizhn. There everything is simple, everything is clear. I prayed and I knew I was praying; I studied and I knew I was studying. Here in Kotzk everything is mixed up, confused; I suffer from it, Rebbe. Terribly. I am lost. Please help me so I can pray and study as before. Please help me to stop suffering.” The Rebbe peers at his tearful disciple and asks: “And who ever told you that God is interested in your studies and your prayers? And what if he preferred your tears and your sufferings?”

Writing in the New York Times, Jennifer Senior notes that the celebrated social psychologist Philip Brickman, author of a famed study of happiness, killed himself by jumping off a building. “Happiness Won’t Save You,” the headline proclaims.

Who ever was so arrogant, and so small-minded, to think it would?

We cannot be truly and fully grateful unless we get right with suffering. There have been many attempts at working that one out. In the great Eastern religions, suffering is something to be minimized and, finally, escaped: The Buddha spoke of the four “noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering,” and many teachers in the Hindu traditions speak of a final liberation from suffering. In Islam, suffering selects: It offers a test of faith separating the committed disciple from the unbeliever.

Christians take a distinctly radical view: that suffering is neither an evil to be evaded nor a punishment handed out routinely, like some kind of divine speeding ticket, but something to be entered into willingly in order to become not godlike but more fully and more perfectly human. We learn to be grateful not only for the alleviation of suffering but for the suffering itself — that, too, is a gift. We discover ultimate gratitude when we discover the Ultimate Object of our gratitude. Learning that ultimate gratitude does not necessarily mean wandering around the desert in a supernatural daze, though that has worked for many great men in the past. Some of them even sought out such a wild place as Massachusetts, landing there in the winter in rickety boats, like madmen. They went ashore and gave thanks to God.

We need not go so far, and, besides, we have business to attend to here at home, to which our attention is likely to be enforced for a few more months. Gratitude may not make us saints, but it should leave us cheerful, useful, modest, and patient, and ever mindful of those gifts and blessings that we could not possibly hope to deserve.

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